Anti-mandatory Vaccine Rally

Kevin Davis makes some opening remarks at the Walla Walla County Courthouse during a demonstration to oppose mandatory vaccinations, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

OLYMPIA — About 7% of Washington state government workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have so far requested medical or religious exemptions, highlighting the breadth of resistance to the order.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 4,300 exemptions have been filed by workers at 21 different state agencies, according to spokespeople.

That amounts to roughly 7% of the approximately 60,000 state government employees subject to the mandate that they be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or lose their jobs.

A final number likely will be higher. As of late Tuesday morning, three state agencies hadn’t yet provided figures at the request of The Seattle Times.

Asked about the figures, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email that, “The governor is committed to saving lives, as he has since the start of the pandemic. That is his focus and his responsibility to all Washingtonians.”

“We cannot weigh in on whether any particular employee would be fired – as there is an individualized accommodation process that each employer must go through with each employee that is seeking an exemption,” added Lee. “This process necessarily takes into account the employee’s actual job and the needs of the employer.”

The numbers outline what’s at stake as Inslee pushes forward with one of the nation’s strictest vaccine mandates. In August, the governor ordered state workers, school workers and some health-care employees to be vaccinated, without a regular testing alternative as offered by some other states.

Not everyone who applies for an exemption will necessarily be granted one. And even if workers are granted an exemption, they can still be fired if accommodations can’t be found for them in less public-facing positions.

Washington in recent months has battled a fifth wave of COVID-19 that has strained the hospital system. More than nine out of 10 patients hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated, health officials have said.

But resistance to the order has sparked demonstrations in Olympia and concerns that an exodus of state workers could hinder core functions of government.

Meanwhile, dozens of Washington State Patrol troopers and other state and local government workers have sued Inslee, contending that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and exceeds his legal authority.

On Monday afternoon, The Seattle Times asked the 24 state agencies in the governor’s executive cabinet to report how many religious and medical exemptions have been filed.

At least 1,400 workers at the state Department of Social and Health Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Adolfo Capestany. One of the largest state agencies, DSHS oversees parts of the state’s mental health system, as well as economic assistance, and aging and long-term care services, among other services.

At the Washington state Department of Transportation, 542 exemptions have been submitted, according to spokesperson Kris Rietmann Abrudan. Of those, 48 were for medical reasons and 494 were for religious reasons, she added.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the state’s foster-care system, among other services — has received 426 exemption requests, according to spokesperson Nancy Gutierrez.

As of Monday, nearly 400 exemptions have been filed at the Washington State Patrol.

And 258 workers at the Department of Labor and Industries — the agency that has been tasked during the pandemic with enforcing many of the governor’s emergency orders in workplaces — requested exemptions.

About 10% of the 724 employees at the Department of Enterprise Services have requested exemptions, according to spokesperson Linda Kent. That agency manages the Capitol campus in Olympia, and performs services for other government entities, such as human resources, risk management, printing and contracting.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has received 111 requests statewide, according to spokesperson Heidi Audette, totaling more than 12% that agency’s workforce.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has received 112 requests, and the Department of Revenue has gotten 93 requests, according to spokespeople. The Department of Licensing, meanwhile, has so far fielded 87 requests.

The Department of Health has 171 requests for exemptions, according to a public-records officer for the agency.

The bulk of the exemptions have been filed for religious reasons, according to spokespeople at the agencies that provided breakdowns.

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